Jim Rathmann: Racing driver who won the 1960 Indianapolis 500


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The Independent Online

Jim Rathmann, who died on 23 November aged 83, was a racing driver whose win in the 1960 Indianapolis 500 made him a star. A regular on the IndyCar circuit from 1949-63, he had had to settle for second at Indianapolis in 1952, 1957 and 1959. Then, in 1960, he finally broke through in what was probably the greatest two-man battle in the history of one of motor racing's biggest events.

Having started in the middle of the front row Rathmann remained at the front of the field but over the final 250 miles he and the defending champion, Rodger Ward, engaged in an epic struggle, trading the lead 14 times in two hours. They rarely ran more than a few feet apart while fighting worn tires and guessing at their fuel mileage, which was relayed to them only by pitboard. Ward gained the upper hand and with three laps to go, it looked as if Rathmann would once again finish second.

But then Ward noticed a discoloration in the centre of his right front tyre, a sign of excessive wear, forcing him to slow down just to stay in the top two. The relieved Rathmann nursed his car back into the lead, winning the race at a then-record speed of 138.767mph – avoiding in the process the dubious distinction of being the only four-time runner-up in the history of the 500.

Born Royal Richard Rathmann in 1928, he borrowed the name Jim from his older brother to race under-age in the mid-1940s. The name stuck, and his brother later raced as Dick Rathmann. In 1948, Jim moved from California to Chicago where he raced hot rods in the Chicago-based Hurricane Hot Rod Association series.

A year later, he was driving IndyCars and over the next decade, Rathmann became a big name in racing circles. He also drove in Italy's Race of Two Worlds, which was run in 1957 and 1958 on the high-banked oval at Monza which had a reputation for being bumpy and dangerous. It was intended as a showdown between the Americans and Europe's Formula One drivers, but the US had the upper hand both times. Rathmann followed Jimmy Bryan's 1957 win with an even more convincing victory the following year, saying of the daunting track, ""It's fine so long as you don't look at the trees."

Rathmann also raced on the NASCAR circuit – stock-car racing – and won the USAC national championship race. But it was his Indy 500 win that vaulted him into the spotlight. He became close friends with the astronauts Alan Shepard, Gus Grissom, and Gordon Cooper, persuading one of them to place a decal from his Cadillac and Chevrolet car dealership in Melbourne, Florida, on a cart that was driven on the moon. He also built a successful range of go-karts, Rathmann Xterminators. Later, he drove the Indy pace car six times, making his last Indy appearance in 2009 at the track's Centennial Era Gala.

Royal Richard Rathmann, racing driver: born Alhambra, California 16 July 1928; died Melbourne, Florida 23 November 2011.